Dec 012020

“Glory of love…”

I believe no song in Lou Reed‘s catalog better represents the hardships he overcame as a musician than “Coney Island Baby.” I wish there was video of the live version from Take No Prisoners, with the sincerely beautiful, painful, uncomfortable intro about wanting to play football for the coach, but this will have to do. It helps to have video evidence of the struggle simply playing rhythm guitar and singing was for Lou.

I’ve spent a lot of time through the years having a laugh over Lou Reed, but I love the man’s music and the awkward pathos he brought to rock ‘n roll. I think about the expenses that went into paying studio cats and the highly accomplished road warriors who made up his touring bands to put flourishes on the 4 chords Reed can barely muster playing on songs like “Coney Island Baby.” I think about the background singers who had to get paid to accompany his hectoring on the choruses. I think about how much effort went into this attempt at reaching out to The People, the way Bruce, The Boss, has been able to do since he ambled out of his mother’s womb. Does “Coney Island Baby” land as intended for all but a handful of even Lou’s most passionate fans? Probably not.

“Coney Island Baby” always hits the spot for me. We typically measure our heroes up by their greatest accomplishments, their “Sweet Jane,” their “Like a Rolling Stone.” Greatness can also be measured by an artist’s “missed landings.” I want to play football for the coach.

Is there a missed landing, an against all odds numbers by one of your favorite artists that does as much to demonstrate that artist’s greatness as their acknowledged classics?


  13 Responses to “Against All Odds: Lou Reed and the Special Olympics of Rock ‘n Roll”

  1. Remember Mojo? He too had that strange fascination with Lou that you have and to a lesser degree myself. Call it the damaged goods club,

    I too am a huge fan of “Wanna Play Football for the Coach”. And I too prefer the version on Take No Prisoners. It’s heartfelt, awkward, embarrassing, and totally sincere. It’s one of the weirdest things ever recorded. There’s nothing like it whatsoever. For some reason or another, whatever’s going on in that song is something that was eating at him for years and years, and it had to come out, no matter who told him it might not be a good idea to commit that thing to vinyl. And the truth of the matter is that’s why I like Lou Reed. He never gave a fuck what anyone thought about him. Actually, that may or might not be true, but he’s certainly damn good at convincing me he felt that way.

    I’m racking my brain for other Special Olympics performers, but the truth of the matter is that no one holds that kickboard and swims across the other side of the pool quite like Lou. For me, the Blue Mask is his ultimate Special Olympics performance. Like “Coach”, it’s once again heartfelt, awkward, embarrassing, and totally sincere. And the only difference between the Blue Mask and “Coach” is that the Blue Mask is an album of coach-like performances.

    I listen to the Blue Mask a lot. And I’m always a basket case while I listen to it. And I don’t know specifically why, but for the 40 minutes or so that It spins on the turntable, it always reminds me of all the worst times of my life and how I summoned up what little I had to get it together. No other record triggers that kind of emotion. Unbelievably powerful shit.

    Everytime I find a clean copy of the record, I keep it. Why? It’s one of the world’s finest pieces of art. I really believe that.

    The whole Lou Reed thing is very weird. You either get it or you don’t. I think it’s a “takes one to know one” kind of thing. Chances are, if you’ve been a fuck up for a good chunk of your life, you get Lou.

    Moderator, is that more or less right?

  2. Yes, I think a deep-seated sense of one’s own shortcomings and fuck ups goes a long way to fully appreciating Lou. I know you’re not a sports guy, but I can’t imagine some Golden Child like former NFL QB Peyton Manning, of the Manning QB Dynasty, getting into Lou Reed. My apologies if I’m underestimating Peyton’s inner sense of failure and torment, beyond losing to Tom Brady’s Patriots more times than he would have preferred.

  3. As for other artists whose “missed landings” provide as much insight into their universally acclaimed masterpieces, I’ve been watching a lot of early-’70s Johnny Cash specials on TV of late – and I got to catch my favorite Columbo episode, in which Johnny plays a darker version of himself and sings “Sunday Morning Coming Down” to a poolside of bikini-clad admirers. I am not an expert on Johnny Cash, but I sense songs like “Sunday Morning Coming Down,” by the multi-untalented Kris Kristofferson, add to my appreciation of The Man in Black as much as his no-brainer classics. Oh, how I wish we had our old friend Dr John here to set me straight on the brilliance of Cash’s early-’70s output.

    I would imagine Dylan’s catalog holds ample evidence for some fans. Personally, I can’t get much beyond the brilliantly challenged (to my ears) John Wesley Harding album, which I love more than I probably than anyone but a mother could love, but I know we’ve got Townspeople like Al and BigSteve who probably find beauty in the dashed dreams of his 873 bootleg series albums and whatnot.

  4. I’m racking my brain for a comparable performance, and the only thing that comes to mind is Keith Richard’s first outing as a lead vocalist on “Salt of the Earth.” It’s absolutely and positively a kickboard sloppy swim to the other side of the pool. He makes it, and we love him for it, letting us know that we too can do such things as well.

  5. Hearing Keith Richards’ first outing as a vocalist reminds me of first hearing The Kinks’ “Wait ‘Till Summer Comes Along”. I think that might be Dave Davies’ first outing as a lead vocalist. It’s a nice track, and it’s within the parameters of the whole Special Olympics thing. Nowhere near the bull’s eye but nonetheless worth mentioning.

  6. Those Keef and Dave Davies performances are great examples. I don’t think you agree with me on this one, but I also find myself shedding a tear of inspiration over the tremendous effort Dave makes in playing a loopy, extended solo at the end of the song “Australia.” The guy is attempting to exceed his god-given talents like never before.

  7. I’m not sure I’m following the premise 100% but All Shook Down gets very little love from the old school Replacements fans but I like it a lot. I think it’s perceived as a wussified misstep by a band whose albums used to be various degrees of unhinged, funny, rocking (in the least clichéd sense possible), and proudly/righteously/stupidly diligent about not selling out. But a lot of the best parts of the early albums are still present on ASD. Sonically, it’s tighter and more focused but without Bob Stinson, it almost has to be, But it still has a ragged musical edge to it.

    Most importantly, though, Westerberg’s songwriting, while much more refined on this than the early albums, retains its crucial bittersweet ingredient. He is still able to tap into the vulnerability and ginned up bravado that resonated with those of us in touch with our inner outsider. So maybe he left behind those who wanted a Hootenanny II (frankly, Hootenanny grows old quickly for me), but I think that those who dismissed ASD without giving it a fair listen missed some classic Westerberg songs that are every bit as impactful as Takin a Ride or Favorite Thing.

  8. misterioso

    Allow me to meander around this topic since, like cdm, I am not sure I fully understand the concept. But it gives me the opportunity to mention that I can’t think of an artist I regard more highly than Lou Reed, with a pretty huge body of work, where I feel like I actually connect to, or even get, such a small percentage of it, or can even except on rarely occasions be bothered with much of. And yet my affection and basic admiration for him remains.

    And I’ll take the bait on Mod’s Dylan bootleg series sniffiness. A) I would assert that Dylan is hands down the greatest artist produced by the worlds of folk/rock/whatever, to say nothing of very likely one of the two or three greatest artist America has produced in the past 60 years, and B) I would assert, and I think there is no basis for contradiction, that any attempt to come to grips with Dylan’s career must involve the various Bootleg Series installments (though certainly not all of them equally). With the possible exceptions Prince, there is no other artist I am aware of whose “official” career is so often dwarfed by the vast and incredibly rich “unofficial” one.

    So, to me, it is extremely easy and, really, something of a no-brainer to have high regard for Dylan’s career up to and including John Wesley Harding: there are hidden riches on those Bootleg Series releases for this period, yes, but the “official” material is so great that it doesn’t really matter. For the rest of Dylan’s career there are inconsistencies, stunning lapses of judgement, failures to distinguish the great from the garbage, and periods of losing the plot. And there are stunning achievements, sometimes right next to the garbage, sometimes hidden by the garbage, and all too often, only to be found on those 873 bootleg series releases. So, yeah, mixed landings like Street Legal, the unholy mess of the Born Again years that is completely transformed in light of, yes, the Bootleg Series, Oh Mercy, Time Out of Mind–those in many ways cut closer to the bone than the absolute genius of Highway 61 or Blonde on Blonde (which I adore no less for that), because they are the work of a flawed human achieving greatness, not the absolute greatness of a 25 year old who knows nothing of failure.

  9. Misterioso, in case I wasn’t clear, I wasn’t saying that there weren’t brilliant missteps in Dylan’s career past John Wesley Harding, if anyone considers that album less-than-a-clean landing, just that Dylan’s catalog past that point does not contain the sort of missed landings that inform *me* of Dylan’s further greatness. (And I do consider him an undeniable titan despite not even being too hot on Blood on the Tracks.) However…your mention of Street Legal reminds me that I do like that album in just this way. Then I was reminded of his reggae-ish version of “Shelter From the Storm” on that live album with The Band, the one with the brown-bordered cover and the raised lighters. That’s another example, *for me*.

  10. I mentioned to Al a couple of years back that despite the deserved high praise heaped on Blood on the Tracks, there is not a song on there that does not have at least one horrible line that should have been excised on the spot. It’s very weird.

    I actually have a soft spot for Desire, which may be Special Olympics material. It seemed like after the tight focus of BOTT (despite the lyrical CLANGS), he tried to revisit his entire early career, including the protest and surrealism, with little regard for coherence. It’s got some terrible stuff on there, particularly Joey, but it feels like he got the shackles off and didn’t really care if he stepped in it.

    I think I feel the same way about XTC’s Oranges & Lemons, which always seemed like Partridge’s counter reaction to the discipline imposed by Rundgren on Skylarking.

  11. I like the little cheer that goes up in the crowd on that first video after Lou strums a few chords that could be the start of at least a half dozen of his songs. Did they know what was coming or did half of them think it was a downtempo version of Sweet Jane or an understated Heroine?

  12. For two classes of people – those who like Street Legal and those who don’t like Street Legal – I need to again recommend Robbie Fulks’ remake of that album (or, as he terms it, a reversioned recording) entitled “16”. Easily the greatest Bob Dylan covers album I’m aware of (and I have more than any sane or insane person should have).

  13. BigSteve

    Have you ever noticed how Lou’s picking hand is always so inflexible? It looks like a fist. Any guitar teacher would tell him to loosen up and let the hand move a little bit.

    The live versions of Coney Island Baby fall into the trap of trying to boost the song’s intensity. The original album version retains just the right balance of wistfulness and ruthlessness, and the ending feels genuinely moving to me. These two live endings just seem hyped up in a way that doesn’t serve to emotion of the song.

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